The Guardian finds the conversation~woo hoo~and more re; scientists v journalists

I thought this was an interesting read. I didn’t, however, agree with the comment that articles on the Conversation are boring.  Anyway the thrust of this post is there appears to be an ongoing online debate about how science should be communicated by journalists and vice versa.  In many of these articles there are a few salient points that keep popping up.

Scientists have a valid point regarding the writing of science journalism that includes the he said/she said mentality.  Now this is not mainstream journalism.   It doesn’t happen that often in general news no matter how hard a journalist tries to convince you that it does.

Take this scenario.  Joe Blow comes to the journalist and says John Smith is misappropriating funds from a charity organisation.  Journalist knows nothing about Joe Blow and is certainly not going to invest his time in a story that may be untrue and is also likely to cost the publisher a defamation suit.  So he checks out Joe Blow and finds nothing to suggest he shouldn’t take Joe Blow seriously.  He does.  He does a more in depth interview and asks for other people who can corroborate the story.

The more the journalists speaks to Joe Blow the more he feels that Joe Blow may be telling porkie pies.  He just sounds like a bit of a loose canon. Parts of his story don’t add up and Joe Blow is totally pissed that he got the sack from the Big Wig charity a couple of months ago.   Joe Blow’s mates confirm that Joe is a sandwich short of a picnic.

At this point the journalist tells his editor.  The editor makes a call as to whether to investigate more time and money into the article and decides No, for whatever reasons and there will be many but the biggest will be risks of a possible defamation suit.

When do the opposing views of the story get published?  When and if an investigative reporter finds concrete evidence that John Smith has misappropriated funds from the Big Wig charity.  No editor in his right mind would print it before this.  If the evidence is found and the article is printed, then you will find the opposing arguments, he said/she said.

So what is the purpose of opposing arguments within the context of a science article?  I think it may come down to the fact that the journalist wants to be sure the scientist is telling the truth.  That the scientist hasn’t made it up.  But scientists don’t make things up do they?  So how can we better address this issue of truth?  The only way a scientist can tell a porkie is if they don’t set up an experiment properly or they don’t include biases or they are being paid to say something that’s not true.  So the first step a journalist can take is to make sure they understand the paper and decide if the science has merit.   That’s not easy for journalists that are not scientists, but they can do it.  Read the paper; especially read the references.  f you ask the scientists who else in the industry has worked on this kind of science and can corroborate it, they are more than happy to supply other experts.  Like I said you should be able to find others who have worked on this research just by reading the references in the paper.  That doesn’t mean finding a physics science to understand biochemistry (is that a good example?) or finding anyone who will oppose the idea.

So I’m really not sure how or why these opposing views keep cropping up in science articles.  Could it be because it makes ‘good’ journalism, which brings me to my next point for opposing viewpoints.

Taking a science press release and publishing it ad verbatim is a bad bad thing in journalism.  Its called churnalism and many other derogatory things.  You are considered a bad journalist if you just print this stuff that comes from flacks.  Even though it happens all the time.  After all how can you tell if its true?  So you go looking for that opposing viewpoint, because it makes for a good story.  But really there is nothing wrong with the media release as it is.  It’s been written by a flack and despite the antagonism between journalists and PR people.  Flacks know how to write.  They would have run the story by the scientist, he would be happy with it.  It’s written in journalistic style.  It’s not too long or too short. But it may be boring.  But you know what maybe it’s a plain piece, does everything have to be Eureka?  And the most important thing about  this piece is it’s probably truthful.  Isn’t  it?  You hope it is because it might come back and bite you on the bum.  “Today a top notch science journalist printed an article about life on Mars.”   Uh oh.  Bad bad journalist.   You didn’t get that opposing viewpoint; you trusted the flack.

Another area in science communication that could be improved and this is mentioned in the article is the word count.  When there is a word count you run the risk of compartmentalisation and losing a lot of context to boot.  What gets cut and what doesn’t.  What is important and what isn’t?  This is very important and I don’t think it should be left to the journalist to decide.

And this final comment on the article by, OlietheFolie:  It’s not that scientists don’t understand journalism, it’s that journalists don’t understand science.

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About Susan Kirk

Susan Kirk is a freelance science journalist, with a degree in journalism and qualifications in horticulture. She has written for many different publications but lately writes extensively for Fairfax media. She wrote a number of the Taste booklets (Global Food and Wine) which showcased Australian produce and producers and even did a stint as a restaurant critique. She loves growing, cooking and consuming food so over the years the interest in ornamental plants turned into an interest in food plants, especially herbs. She is a member of the Media Alliance, and is a member of and the Queensland web editor for the Australian Science Communicators.